There's an elephant in our electoral
living room that Democratic leaders want to hide. In all the talk about
cranky voting machines, chads and butterflies, this is one topic the
Gore camp has not touched. It will hurt them. It has already. In this
case, the pachyderm is institutional racism, and in an election of losers
it has come out on top.
Consider the big picture: in election
2000, 90 percent of African Americans voted for Gore, as did 63 percent
of Latinos and 55 percent of Asians (exit-poll data on Native Americans
is unavailable but they've historically voted Democratic.) The popular
vote - that national, pro-Democrat majority -- is disproportionately
people of color. Thanks to the winner-take all, Electoral College system,
it counts for naught.
In the contested state of Florida,
the Black vote was up a huge 65 percent. In a state where thirty-one
percent of all Black men may not vote because of an 1868 ban on felons,
Blacks contributed 16 percent (up from 10 percent) of the turnout, and
nine out of ten voted Democratic. Again, disproportionately, their votes
On day one after the election, there
was a story in the Florida papers about an unauthorized police roadblock,
stopping cars not a mile from a Black church-turned- polling-booth.
NAACP volunteers reported being swamped with complaints from registered
voters who had found it impossible to vote. They heard stories of intimidation
at and around polling places; demands for superfluous ID; people complained
about a pattern of singling out Black men and youths for criminal background
checks, and in call after call, would-be voters complained they'd been
denied language interpretation, and other help at the polls.
By now it's clear that overwhelmed
election workers made a mass of mistakes but those mistakes were laced
through with some clear intent to suppress some votes. A full three
weeks after the election The New York Times finally took a serious look
and reported that -anticipating a large turnout in a tight race -- Florida
election officials had given laptop computers to precinct workers so
they could have direct access to the state's voter rolls, but the computers
only went to some precincts, and only one went to a precinct whose people
were predominantly Black. The technology gap in the no-laptop precincts
forced the workers there to rely on a few phone lines to head office.
Voters whose names did not appear on the rolls were held up while workers
tried to get through on the phone, for hours, or until they gave up.
For those who voted, there was another
technology glitch. 185,000 Floridians cast ballots that did not count.
Theirs were the ballots that had been punched too few or too many times,
or were otherwise flawed. Flaws too, seem to have followed race lines.
In an election that turned on a few hundred votes, Floridians whose
ballots failed to register a mark for President were much more likely
to have voted with computer punch cards than optical scanning machines.
In Miami Dade, the county with the most votes cast, predominantly Black
precincts saw their votes thrown out at four times the rate of white
precincts: according to the Times, 1 out of 11 ballots in predominantly
black pf 9,904.
Urban, multi-racial Palm Beach, home
of the infamous butterfly ballot, and Duval, where candidates' names
were spread across two pages despite what the published ballot had shown,
produced thirty one percent of Florida's discarded ballots (but only
twelve percent of the total votes cast.) In Duval, which has one of
the highest illiteracy rates in the nation, more than 26,000 votes were
rejected, 9,000 from precincts that were predominantly Black.
Many Floridians who found themselves
"scrubbed" off the voting rolls weren't purged accidentally, reports
Gregory Palast for Salon.com. Florida
Secretary of State Katherine Harris paid a private firm, ChoicePoint,
$4 million to "cleanse" the voting rolls, and the firm used the state's
felon-ban, to exclude eight thousand voters who had never committed
a felony. ChoicePoint is a Republican outfit. Board members include
former New York Police commissioner Howard Safir and billionaire Ken
Langone, chair of the fundraising committee for Mayor Giuliani's aborted
New York Senate bid. The erroneous data wasn't their doing, ChoicePoint
complains, the names came, raw, from the state of Texas. They were supposed
to be reviewed locally, but they were distributed un-reviewed. African
Americans dominate. (The 8,000 wrong names were "a minor glitch" ChoicePoint
told Palast; a glitch fifteen times the size of the Texas Governor's
As for that election morning police
checkpoint, near Tallahassee, Robert Chamber, a Black resident, told
the Guardian UK he knew what it was about: "putting fear in people's
hearts." The Florida panhandle is home to the largest concentration
of neo-confederate white supremacist groups in the US. But this problem
is no neo-nazi plot - it's racism of the institutional, not the exceptional
kind, and even more devastating than the statistics has been Democratic
leadership's silence. While African Americans in huge numbers know there
was massive voter fraud, harassment and intimidation a la Jim Crow,
the Democratic Party's white top-dogs have resolutely refused to talk
about voting rights, race or racism - Why? For fear it will hurt them
in the court of public opinion? Among white swing voters and southern
Democrats? Already hurting in all of those places, they're trifling
with one of the few solid voting blocks they've got left, (Blacks, Latinos,
The NAACP came out strong, the weekend
after the election, holding public hearings and gathering 300 pages
of legally sworn testimony from 486 people who say they were denied
their right to vote. With the Congressional Black Caucus the NAACP wrote
to Janet Reno seeking a Justice Department investigation into possible
violations of the Voting Rights Act. That was back on November 14th.
Since then, the Gore campaign has filed dozens of lawsuits - not one
deals with violations of voting rights. The Justice Department has initiated
what officials go out of their way to characterize as a preliminary
inquiry, not an investigation. (Alligator-wrestler Reno is scared to
stir the waters in her home-state, where she's hoping to retire any
day now, some say.)
The Gore team has chosen to try to
eek some votes out of three counties with manual counts, and to make
much of butterflies and chards, but nothing of race. (Recently, Gore
told a reporter he was "very troubled" by the "serious allegations."
That's it.) His racist denial of the seriousness of racism makes nonsense
out of US politics.
The Electoral College is a tool of
racism. As Yale's Akhil Reed Amar wrote in the New York Times, "the
College was designed at the founding of the country to help one group
- white Southern males - and this year, it has apparently done just
In the years after the forced-end
of slavery, former slave states like Florida imposed those felon - disenfranchisement
laws, precisely to disempower freed-but-impoverished Blacks. The political
parties crafted the statewide primary system into what amounted to a
white-man's private club to keep the newly enfranchised under the old
establishment's control. Then came literacy tests and poll taxes - voters
had to keep their tax-receipts on file - anything to keep electoral
power in white hands. For an idea of what those tackling literacy tests
faced, consider: under Jim Crow, Florida required that textbooks used
by the public school children of one race be kept separate from those
used by the other -- even in storage.
After the 1965 Act was passed, states
did everything they could to dilute Black influence. Winner-take all
systems, or absolute majority vote requirements were embraced to keep
black candidates from winning over split fields of white candidates
in local races - in just the same way as winner-take-all works in the
presidential contest. More offices were filled by appointment. Legislative
and congressional district lines were redrawn to keep black voting strength
None of this requires looking back
very far: the same House Speaker, Tom Feeney, who wants the Florida
legislature to select a Bush slate of Electors no matter what the vote-counters
count, suggested reintroducing literacy tests just two weeks ago: "Voter
confusion is not a reason for whining or crying or having a revote,"
said Feeney. "It may be a reason to require literacy tests." (Palm Beach
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
who will may well be the final arbiter of which votes get counted and
which (white) man gets the White House, is William Rehnquist, a segregationist
from way back.
In 1962, Republican activist William
(then "Bill") Rehnquist was the leader of Operation Eagle Eye, a flying
squad of GOP lawyers that swept through polling places in south Phoenix
to question the right of minority voters to cast their ballots. As Dave
Wagner reported in the Arizona Republic last year, Rehnquist defended
keeping African Americans out of stores and restaurants in Phoenix.
In 1964, at the Bethune precinct, (which was 40 percent Hispanic and
90 percent Democratic) Rehnquist and Operation Eagle Eye activists challenged
every Black and Mexican voter's ability to read the Constitution of
the United States in the English language (then a requirement.)
The result, according to one witness,
was "a line a half-block long, four abreast". They wanted people
to become frustrated and leave." In his testimony to a US Senate hearing
on his appointment to the Supreme Court,
Rehnquist denied that he officially challenged anyone's right
to vote. Just as today's defenders of Bush, argue that voter error,
not bias, disproportionately shrank the counted vote, Rehnquist argued
that he broke no rules, he was just following the law.
Trying to wage politics in the US
while tiptoing around racism is like sidestepping an elephant. It's
dangerous, it's not smart, and it won't work. What suppresses the Black
and minority vote suppresses the Democratic and liberal-progressive
vote. The majority of white male voters haven't polled Democratic since
1964 and only women of color create the gender gap for Gore. Yet the
unequal distribution of resources and bias that created a practically
apartheid voting system in Florida was sustained by the Democratic Party
- who approved of the process, try as they might to blame the Governor's
cronies. And Democratic pro-drug war, pro-death penalty, pro-felon disenfranchisement
policies stoked the racist atmosphere in which this election was held.
The conditions are ripe for a pro-democracy
movement. A moment, at least: this is it. Some things have changed in
the nation since 1964, and when the public has heard (or seen on CSPAN)
the witnesses who gave the NAACP testimony, they have been shocked.
Voter protests in Florida have built a multi-racial coalition that is
advocating the kind of electoral reform the whole nation could get behind.
Among their demands: a non-partisan election commission, standardized
voting procedures and federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
Add to that, the longer-term structural changes some advocate: instant
run off voting, or some form of proportional representation, so that
small parties (and minority constituencies) could build support for
their issues without throwing elections to their foes.
The public has seen the Electoral
College in its worst light: for the first time, the tyranny of a minority
may contradict the popular will. Perhaps something will come of the
shared experience of disenfranchisement. But notif we don't talk about
what's at the root of it: racism. Not "the system," but this particular,
racist one. And those who've been marginalized must occupy the center.
People of color are central to why our electoral system is set up this
way; likewise, they must be at the heart of any movement for real democracy.
We can get rid of the racism, but only if we all shove that elephant
out at once.
A Racist Elephant in Our Living Room
By Laura Flanders